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Today's uniform provides link to fallen heroes

A cross marks the grave of pilot 2nd Lt. William J. Miller of the 452nd Bomb Group, who was killed in an Oct. 12, 1944, crash of the B-17 Inside Curve in England. Seven of his crewmates died with him. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Master Sgt. Matt Proietti/452AMW)

A cross marks the grave of 2nd Lt. William J. Miller at the American Military Cemetery in Cambridge, England. The 452nd Bombardment Group pilot and seven of his crewmates died Oct. 12, 1944, in a crash of the B-17 Flying Fortress "Inside Curve." His gravesite was decorated with U.S. and British flags for a Memorial Day ceremony May 31, 2004. (U.S. Air Force photo by Chief Master Sgt. Matt Proietti)

Representatives from various veterans’ organizations place wreaths along the Wall of the Missing during the annual memorial ceremony at the Cambridge, England, American Military Cemetery. (U.S. Air Force photo by Varina Proietti)

Representatives from various veterans’ organizations place wreaths along the Wall of the Missing May 31, 2004, during a Memorial Day ceremony at the American Military Cemetery in Cambridge, England. (U.S. Air Force photo by Varina Proietti)

Floral wreaths lay at the base of a statue honoring a World War II aviator. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Master Sgt. Matt Proietti/452 AMW)

Floral wreaths lay at the base of a statue honoring a World War II aviator following a Memorial Day ceremony May 31, 2004, at the American Military Cemetery in Cambridge, England. (U.S. Air Force photo by Chief Master Sgt. Matt Proietti)

ROBINS AFB, Ga. -- It's strange to be thanked for actions your countrymen took 20-plus years before you were born.

That's what happened to me a decade ago when I attended a Memorial Day ceremony at the American Military Cemetery near Cambridge, England. I was in the United Kingdom on temporary duty for the Air Force Reserve's 452nd Air Mobility Wing when I was by chance invited to participate in the observance.

The 452nd initially formed as a bombardment group and flew B-17 Flying Fortresses from one of the dozens of U.S. airfields in the East Anglia area northeast of London. The region provided outstanding access to targets on the European mainland. I planned to simply attend the Memorial Day ceremony in dress uniform but jumped at the chance to participate by placing a wreath for the 452nd Bomb Group Association, a fraternal organization of World War II veterans that had no representative in attendance.

Thirty 452nd men are among the more than 3,800 GIs buried at the 30-acre cemetery, which is run by the American Battle Monuments Commission on land donated by Cambridge University in 1944 for temporary use. The site, which was later selected as the only permanent U.S. World War II cemetery in the British Isles, features a chapel, reflecting pools and a Wall of the Missing, where the names and particulars of more than 5,100 people are etched.

"The Americans whose names here appear were part of the price that free men for the second time in this century have been forced to pay to defend human liberty and rights," President Eisenhower said during the cemetery's July 1956 dedication for perpetual use. "All who shall hereafter live in freedom will be here reminded that to these men and their comrades we owe a debt to be paid with grateful remembrance of their sacrifice and high resolve that the cause for which they died shall live eternally."

The cemetery hosts a ceremony the last Monday in May, which coincides with America's Memorial Day. Though the United Kingdom doesn't recognize the same holiday, the event draws many English citizens and government representatives each year, as well as Air Force participants from nearby U.S. bases. The focus of it is the Wall of the Missing, which features statues of young men from various American services. I and 100 others placed wreaths there that day.

After the ceremony, I wanted to study the other floral arrangements more closely but the crowd was so large that it was difficult to get close to them. Instead, I wandered off among graves marked by white crosses or Stars of David and, on this day, by tiny U.S. and British flags. After the crowd thinned, I went back to the wall. An elderly man with white hair strode deliberately toward me and I knew he was going to speak. Did he ever.

"When you return to your country, take with you our eternal thanks," he said and shook my hand. He was old enough to have lived through the Blitz and perhaps even served in uniform himself. I almost told him that I was "simply a reservist," but I kept my mouth shut and let him have his moment. For him, I was a living connection to those he was really thanking.

(Proietti is a reservist with the Air Force Public Affairs Agency in San Antonio and public affairs manager of the Air Force Reserve Yellow Ribbon Program at Robins Air Force Base, Ga.)

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